Columns » Max Brantley

Little Rock school troubles

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In the Sunday Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, former Little Rock School Board member John Riggs said, as he'd told me six months ago, that it was time for the state of Arkansas to take over the Little Rock School District on account of academic deficiencies in six schools. He fears budget problems when desegregation funding ends and thinks governance of the district is broken.

Also Sunday, I reported on the Arkansas Blog about a letter written by School Board member Leslie Fisken. She said her colleagues, save Greg Adams, are rude, inconsiderate and mean to Superintendent Dexter Suggs. Governance, in other words, is broken.

The events weren't coincidental. Fisken's letter went to Vickie Saviers, a member of the state Board of Education who is chairing a committee that was to hold a meeting on Wednesday of this week and make a recommendation to the full Board of Education about a remedy for Little Rock. The four-member committee includes two people — Saviers and Diane Zook, aunt of Gary Newton, paid by the Walton billionaires to lobby for charter schools — who would love to see more charter schools in Little Rock, no matter the damage to the district.

State takeover of the district has been discussed everywhere power congregates — the state board, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Capital Hotel gatherings of the oligarchs: Walton, Stephens, Hussman clans — who power the school "reform" lobby.

I confess my own sympathy to the idea. Good intentions abound on the School Board and with Superintendent Suggs, but progress has been modest. I'm also tired of the district being waved as a bloody shirt by the Billionaire Boys Club. I'd like to see what they can do with a majority black and impoverished school population locked in a territory exempt from the growth and young families of new higher income neighborhoods in the city.

Symbolically, it won't look good for Arkansas to strip governance from a majority-black board of a majority-black district just out of federal court. Is the state willing to go so far with other districts —including charter school chains — with underperforming schools? Or is it just the Little Rock teachers union and civil rights lawyer John Walker that sticks in its craw?

Fisken should be ignored. She alone wouldn't join the six other board members on a plan to address academic deficiencies. Who's dysfunctional?

Even some friendly to a state takeover aren't friendly to the idea of a takeover on Fisken's apparent model: Superintendent Suggs as the state's puppet. Suggs hasn't been nearly bold enough. He has, however, been friendly to Fisken, including relative to her part in the Republican Party's attempt to use school district information to harm Clarke Tucker in his race for House against Stacy Hurst. The smear backfired spectacularly.

School Board member Jim Ross replied to Fisken's complaint. He made a calm, specific case that the board is trying to overcome years of failure to reach the neediest kids and that she had misstated circumstances.

The reformers probably don't want to catch all of the Little Rock School District bus. Better to cream off the kids from higher income homes with motivated parents and then bray that charter schools "work," while decrying the sorry Little Rock School District.

Just this year, Diane Zook's nephew Gary Newton, the Walton-paid lobbyist, led creation of a white-flight middle school in upscale Chenal Valley. He wants to make a needed school construction tax hostage to a demand for a white-flight high school for West Little Rock. He seems to want Central High School destroyed as a center of academic excellence.

The Waltons would be happy to finance escape hatches for all those who'd prefer to go to school with their own kind and leave a remnant, publicly forsaken district to deplore. They can always count on the bad news finding a prominent position in Walter Hussman's daily newspaper. Fisken's lonely complaint was the lead story in Monday's Democrat-Gazette.

If there be a school takeover, let's not follow the corporate model. The Waltons don't get only the parts they want and junk the rest. They get it all. No child left behind.

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